From the A-League to the ISL: Alessandro Del Piero. Photo: Getty Images
Italian World Cup winner and former Sydney FC player Alessandro Del Piero was set to be unveiled as the Indian Super League’s (ISL) latest marquee signing on Thursday as organisers spoke of sparking a football revolution in the cricket-mad country.
Reports said the 39-year-old had agreed to play for the Delhi Dynamos in the 10-week tournament which begins in October and has been modelled along the lines of cricket’s cash-rich Indian Premier League (IPL).
Del Piero’s signing was expected to be confirmed later on Thursday by ISL organisers, who have already persuaded former French star David Trezeguet and ex-England goalkeeper David James to sign up.
Eight city-based teams are due to take part in the tournament from October 12 to December 20. Several franchises have tie-ups with European football giants such as La Liga champions Atletico Madrid who are the co-owners of Atletico Kolkata.
While India are only 150th in the world rankings, football draws big crowds in some parts of the country – particularly the east – and has been dubbed the game’s sleeping giant by world governing body FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
The English Premier League draws big TV audiences and team owners are hoping to replicate the success of the IPL.
Organised by the All India Football Federation, the ISL is being backed by India’s Reliance Industries, which is controlled by the country’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, and by sports management giant IMG.
“The Indian Super League is an initiative that aims to revolutionise football in this country,” Mukesh Ambani’s wife Nita, who chairs the organising committee, told The Times of India.
“We are a nation of billion-plus but, today, most Indian fans – including my own two sons – only talk of EPL, La Liga or the Arsenals of the world. We are hoping to build a system to nurture talent and make our own national football heroes.
“We all are very excited. However, I must say that these are initial years and we are taking baby steps. The road ahead is long before we take football to its deserving place in Indian sport.”
Retired cricket greats, including Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, are among celebrities promoting the tournament while several Bollywood stars are also fronting franchises.
While most attention is on ageing foreign stars, at least five of each team’s starting line-up must be Indian.
Although some top Indian players have agreed to ISL deals, national captain Sunil Chhetri is among several internationals who have so far declined to join the league.
Although the eight-month I-League has suspended matches during the ISL, several owners are opposed to the new tournament, saying it risks undermining grassroots football.